‘The Newsroom’ Controversy: Oh, Shenandoah


My relationship with The Newsroom has always been a struggle. Initially, I loathed it to the point where if I was in the room when it was on I would put my hands over my ears and go “la, la, la!!!” so I wouldn’t have to listen to that dialogue delivered so fast and mechanically.

Then I actually sat down and watched it (more accurately, I was stuck on a 9-hour flight back from Budapest and it was available on my tiny little airplane seat screen). And I found it entertaining enough to marathon the first and second seasons whilst overcoming a particularly bad upper respiratory infection. I am one of the few people who thought the second season was great but even though I like the show, I also recognize how exhausting and pretentious it is. It’s so strange to both like and hate something with equal fervor.

So I’ve been approaching this third and final season of The Newsroom in a resigned sort of way. The episodes annoy me, but not enough to make me really feel anything. And I guess that’s the thing about The Newsroom—for being so dramatic I’ve rarely felt any emotion towards it. I apathetically like it and dislike it at the same time.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised at this past Sunday’s episode, entitled, “Oh, Shenandoah.” Upon its conclusion I found the episode to be emotional, intriguing, and satisfying. There was one part that I found a little problematic in how uncomfortable it made me, but overall I liked it a lot.

But that part that made me uncomfortable really, really upset a lot of people. This specific subplot of the episode had Don tracking down a college girl named Mary who started a website where victims of sexual assault and rape could go to name their rapists publicly. Charlie told Don that he had to do a story about this website on his show, and that he had to get both Mary (who started the website after being raped), and the man she was accusing of raping her, to go on the show face-to-face live on air. Don sought the girl out to convince her not to go on the show.

Don thought it would be a bad idea to put a rape victim and her abuser on live television together, and I think everyone would agree. The girl however, was eager to do it. She was aware, and angry, that she would never have a trial, never have a jury, never have justice. She wanted to publicly call out the man who raped her.

Then it starts to get a little befuddling. Don has some good intentions with his desire to keep her off of his show (the public will slut-shame her, they will attack everything about her), but he also has some really bad opinions. Namely, that morally he has to believe the accused rapist’s story, which is that the girl wanted it and was begging for it. He took on an innocent-until-proven-guilty-stance and said that his real problem with airing the story was that her website was dangerous. That anyone could go on there and accuse anyone of rape and it could ruin a potentially innocent man’s life.

Okay so, there’s a lot of problematic stuff here. First, to by default not believe a woman who says she has been raped and question whether she is making it up, and chalk all of that up to “morality.” The fear and shame that she won’t be believed is precisely the reason many women never come forward and say that they’ve been raped. And therefore why many rapists are never punished. Second, and more importantly, to believe it is more important to protect a hypothetical few innocent men than to address the very real and very rampant issue of rape on college campuses and how that issue is overlooked, thrown aside, and demeaned every single day. Again, all in the name of moral obligation.

Don’s opinions enraged me. But the scene didn’t. A lot of people walked away from that scene as if the point was to advocate Don’s opinions. That his opinions are the one’s that we as the audience are supposed to side with, because Don is one of the show’s “heroes.” But if you watch that scene, the person who wins (in my opinion) is Mary. She never backs down from her convictions that what she’s doing is right. She says, “There’s not going to be a trial, there’s not going to be an arrest, and there’s not going to be an investigation. Mine is going to be one of the 700,000 untested rape kits so I started this website. This isn’t revenge, it’s a warning, it’s a public service announcement. Do not go on a date with these guys, do not go to a party with these guys. They’re avoiding jail and you think I’m being too harsh? Yeah bitches be bitches, I get it. Yes, I think there’s a chance and I weighed the cost benefit. If another girl got raped because I didn’t say anything, or because someone else didn’t say anything…”

Don is usually a likeable character (insomuch as any character on this show can be “likeable”). His ultimate concern, it seems, is that by going on the show Mary won’t get the justice she’s looking for and could potentially hurt innocent people in the process. And I can see what he’s saying, I guess, but the problematic thing is that in this episode, Don silences a conversation about rape before it even begins to protect innocent men whose lives might maybe someday be harmed by it.

Don’s opinions on rape are baffling and infuriating but many people in this country have opinions on rape that are baffling, infuriating, or worse. It was very, very annoying that Don spoke in a tone of voice as though his was the voice of reason, and Mary was an over-emotional, hysterical victim who should be doubted. But in the end, I don’t think the takeaway from that scene is Don’s thoughts that using the internet as a platform to confront rapists is reckless and wrong because an innocent person could get hurt. I think the audience is meant to side with Mary. I think the driving point of the scene is what Mary says at the end of it: “No, you can’t imagine. Do you want to hear the advice I get? I mean this is real advice, in pamphlets. Say you have a boyfriend. Wear a wedding ring. I’m supposed to protect myself from a man by pretending I’m the property of another man. And of course there’s no shortage of fashion advice. When you came in here, you wanted to go to a public place because you were scared I’d cry rape. I’m scared of getting raped. I’m scared all the time. All the time. So you know what my site does? It scares you. It scares the living shit out of any guy who thinks even once of putting his hands on someone without invitation.”

Mary’s voice is the one that should resonate from that scene. The fact that in the plot of the show, Don silences it by not putting it on his show, doesn’t mean that America didn’t hear it, or that The Newsroom necessarily believes that’s the right thing to do. Mary may not have been given the opportunity to confront her rapist, and Don’s opinions on the matter are abysmal, and the episode ends. But the conversation doesn’t end just because the credits rolled. After all, what are we all talking about?


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